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Congressional auditors looking at the Homeland Security Department say that department has failed to achieve much of what it's been expected to do. That harsh assessment came today about four years after the department was created and just days before the 6th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Some of this has to do with whether you're looking at how empty the glass is rather than how full. The Government Accountability Office has concluded that for the most part, the glass over at the Homeland Security Department is still more than half empty. Comptroller General David Walker said the agency has yet to achieve most of what it's expected to do in areas such as border security, immigration enforcement, emergency response and management.

Mr. DAVID WALKER (Comptroller General, Government Accountability Office): Sometimes, the H.S. has made progress in developing plans and programs, but they face difficulty in implementing them.

FESSLER: Management appears to be the biggest problem GAO found - the difficulty of trying to integrate the 22 different agencies that were merged to create the department after the 9/11 attacks. Walker acknowledged that it would be a huge challenge for anyone.

Mr. WALKER: Even in the private sector, when you do a major merger and when you're trying to effectuate fundamental transformation that can be sustained, that it takes five to seven years, at least, and in government, it typically takes longer.

FESSLER: Still, the GAO found that the Homeland Security agency is lagging in a number of key areas. It noted that plans for a virtual fence along the Southern border have been delayed, that the agency hasn't done enough to improve emergency communications between federal, state and local agencies, that it has yet to develop clear policies for the billions of dollars in acquisitions it makes each year. And the list goes on.

But Paul Schneider, Homeland Security's undersecretary for management, disagreed strongly with the review.

Mr. PAUL SCHNEIDER (Undersecretary for Management, U.S. Department of Homeland Security): Although the department has faced numerous challenges during the first four years of this critical undertaking, we have made great progress.

FESSLER: He said that GAO failed to give enough weight to recent achievements in aviation and border security, and that it gave Homeland Security essentially a pass/fail grade for projects that are expected to take years to complete or update, such as emergency planning.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: The department issued the National Response Plan, which is in place and functioning. But because it is under revision, as most living plans are at some point in time, GAO rates this as not achieved.

FESSLER: In fact, during their testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, the two men appear to agree more than they disagreed on what needs to be done to improve how the agency operates. Their main disagreement was over the system GAO used to assess the department's achievements.

That led Ohio Republican George Voinovich to observe that this might be missing the point - how to make the country safer.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): And what bothers me is that a year from now, in September, which will just be before the election, are we going to be doing the same thing over again, where we have people quibbling about how the rating system and the metrics that are being used.

FESSLER: And, indeed, GAO's ratings of the Homeland Security Department will likely be a factor in the upcoming election, with Democrats arguing that they could do a better job keeping the country safe and Republicans taking issue with that.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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